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As Alabama plays safe with schedule, college football misses Pete Carroll's fearlessness

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Alabama broke its commitment to play a home-and-home series against Michigan State during the 2016-17 seasons, and besides tongue-in-cheek cracks about the Tide running scared from traveling to "Beast Lansing," there's no practical reason to criticize the move.

Nick Saban cited the fact that playing neutral-site non-conference games, rather than in an on-campus stadium, was "better for business." He's probably correct, at least in the short term.

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Alabama has won three of the past four national titles under Nick Saban. (AP)

Who's to argue, anyway?

Saban has built Alabama into the nation's premier program, winning three of the last four national titles. He believes in a fairly simple scheduling system. Play one neutral-site game against a "name" opponent in an NFL stadium in a prime recruiting area (Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Jacksonville) and then bring three weak teams to Tuscaloosa, often including one from the Sun Belt and one from the old Division I-AA. Let the power of the SEC take care of the rest.

With the SEC expansion last year placing a burgeoning Texas A&M team onto the schedule each season, it makes even more sense. And by 2016, the SEC could require nine conference games, rather than eight.

So out goes Michigan State, even if it hardly seemed like much of a threat. And gone, apparently, are any games on non-SEC campuses.

It is not like Crimson Tide fans care. Saban could replace the schedule with four high school programs, declare it good for recruiting, and they'd pack Bryant-Denny and call him a genius. You'd imagine they'd love the idea of sending the Alabama brand around the country for all to marvel at, let alone getting more opponents they've heard of coming to town. But beating the hell out of some underfunded program seems to be enough. It's like that everywhere these days.

Safe and boring is probably smart.

It's just, well, rather safe and boring.

And it should make everyone miss Pete Carroll even more.

The last college football juggernaut before this era of Crimson Tide dominance was Carroll's Southern California Trojans of last decade. They had so much talent, so much power, so much exceptional coaching, that they were capable of overwhelming everyone.

USC has always believed in playing the biggest games imaginable. Maybe it's the proximity to Hollywood, where blockbusters rule. Maybe it's competing for fans in a major market with plenty of distractions. Maybe it's just how Trojans operate – supremely confident.

Whatever it is, USC, Notre Dame and UCLA are the only teams in college football to never play a Division I-AA team. It's more than that, however. USC is forever eager to take its team on the road, all over America, and showcase everything the program is about. The Trojans do it even while still playing a rigorous conference slate.

It took on special importance when USC was what Alabama is today – the sports showcase program, capable of causing immense excitement just by showing up. USC was a happening. Everywhere.

And it was perfect for Carroll, who spent most of his career in the NFL. He saw no benefit to cupcake games. His entire program was built on competition. He wasn't looking for one good game; he wanted all good games.

"We will play anybody that will play us," Carroll said back in 2003. "It gives us a challenge and makes us a good football team. I don't care if it's the beginning of the year or the end of the year."

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Pete Carroll had no issue loading up the Trojans schedule when he was at USC. (AP)

He also basked in the environment of a big, on-campus game. He lived for the thrill of the challenge and the spectacle of the sport. Why import some weakling to the Coliseum when you can silence some massive stadium in Lincoln or Fayetteville or Columbus?

What's more fun than that?

Carroll never talked about what was best for business.

In Carroll's nine seasons, he played an annual game with Notre Dame, including five trips to South Bend. He also played non-conference road games at Ohio State, Kansas State, Nebraska, Colorado, Auburn, Arkansas, Virginia, BYU and Hawaii. All of those teams also came to Los Angeles. There was one neutral-site appearance, a game against Virginia Tech just outside Washington, D.C., a de facto home game for the Hokies.

This was true barnstorming: East, South, Midwest, Rocky Mountains, even Honolulu. In 2002, the Trojans non-conference schedule was Auburn, at Colorado, at Kansas State and Notre Dame. Then there were eight Pac-10 games. USC played eight teams that were ranked at kickoff.

That's a schedule.

There were just a few mismatch games: San Jose State twice and Idaho once. The Trojans even dared to bring in a dangerous, upstart Fresno State club in 2005 and needed a legendary performance by Reggie Bush to survive.

That was Trojan football. Bring it on. Best on best. Your place and ours. It was good for USC and it was great for the sport. When you're the undeniable top program, it's fair for fans to demand even more from you.

Despite taking on all comers, home and away, Carroll finished his tenure with a non-conference record of 28-3, with all three defeats coming in his first two seasons. After dropping a heated 27-20 contest in Manhattan, Kan., in September 2002, he never lost to another non-Pac-10 team, including 11 games on their campuses.

Carroll left for the NFL in 2010, yet this seems like eons ago. These days, such scheduling is simply unthinkable. Even USC has relaxed things a little.

The trend now is to play maybe one name game and line up the easy wins. The problem is, schedules are made so far out, that what once looked liked a decent challenge can easily wind up being a mediocre, rebuilding opponent. That means a season without any good out-of-league games.

The college football playoff should help, since getting rid of BCS poll voters who rewarded shiny records in lieu of a selection committee that will consider actual strength of schedule has set off a mini-wave of improved schedules. Maybe the dud game era is coming to an end.

Still, when Alabama – mighty, mighty Alabama – isn't willing to play a home-and-home against even a mid-pack Big Ten club, the problem continues. The Tide will get someone good those years, probably with a bigger reputation than Michigan State, but it will be in some NFL stadium and then the Tide will likely return home for some easy work.

As Nick Saban said, that's probably good for business.

It's just not necessarily good for a sport that sure could use another Pete Carroll to come around.

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